Probation officers now toting guns |

Probation officers now toting guns

Christina Proctor

From horrific shootouts in schools, to drive-bys in neighborhoods, the world is a scarier place. Last month, seven El Dorado County probation officers went out into the world packing weapons.

“I’m looking at a Polaroid of a portable rest room at a high school in Tahoe. It has one of my probation officer’s names on it and 187 (the penal code for murder) next to it. It’s chilling,” said Ken Cater, chief probation officer for El Dorado County.

“The decision to arm officers was precipitated by a violent attack upon local police officers where it became necessary for them to shoot a knife-wielding juvenile assailant,” Cater said. “The incident occurred in a residence where deputy probation officers had made several prior visits. The assault could have easily involved unarmed probation officers who would have been gravely injured or even killed.”

Cater would not say whether that incident occurred on the South Shore or the West Slope, explaining that he did not want to bring more attention to the juvenile assailant.

Cater said the law always allowed probation officers, sworn peace officers, to be armed, but for many, it was a last resort.

“It’s getting more common,” Cater said. “We were kind of an island here with all the counties around us being armed for several years.

“We’ve always used an abundance of caution, but essentially we’ve just been lucky,” Cater said. “We’ve found loaded guns and run into dangerous suspects who have warrants out for them. Through the years we have issued two-way radios and bullet-proof vests. We were saving firearms until the point was reached.

“We’ve had some guns on campuses here through the years, not often but it does happen. We had an incident recently with BB guns. Some middle school students were passing it around and taking potshots at people. The injuries were just stinging and welts, but what’s that about? What’s next?”

The process of arming probation officers in El Dorado County took about a year from conception to funding, but Cater said it is a subject that has been discussed ever since he started in 1973. Guns were issued to six field supervision officers and one manager at the end of May. The department budgeted for seven more officers to be armed next year.

“We started with our supervision officers because they’re the ones going out into the field,” Cater said.

Training was provided through the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department. Officers also received instruction in the use of force, and self-defense tactics.

Dave Colon, deputy chief probation officer, said changes in state law and overflows in the prison system have changed the profile of the clientele the probation department is dealing with.

“You can just look at today’s headlines and I’m not just talking about adults. I’m talking about juveniles as well,” Colon said.

With 32 years of probation work behind him Colon was not enamored at first with the idea of arming his staff.

“I was a sociology major. I guess I have one foot 30 years ago and one foot today,” Colon said. “After talking to other counties who have already armed and considering the situations I see the value in it.”

Colon added that throughout California few probation officers have had to use their weapons.

Cater emphasized that carrying firearms will not change his officers’ role.

“Nothing philosophically has changed in the department. We’re not cops. Ours is more of a defensive weapon,” Cater said.

The choice to carry a firearm is voluntary. Colon said only one officer declined when it was first offered, but later changed his mind.

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